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Stories that stay with you

Posted by on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 in Editor's Column, October 2011.

Wherever any of us go, we represent the groups to which we belong.

We know this in big ways. If you travel in a foreign country, for example, at some level you are probably conscious that the way you act and treat people somehow represents all Americans.

This is true even in small things. If people know two things about you, 1) you collect model trains, and 2) you are weird, a thesis will form in their minds: people who collect model trains are weird. This may or may not be true, but that’s what people will think, and that’s what representing a group means.

I’m saying all of that to say this: I have a built-in bias in favor of faculty members of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, and that bias came about because one of the school’s first faculty that I spent a lot of time around was Anderson Spickard Jr., M.D.

One of my first assignments as a young writer at Vanderbilt was to interview him for a story on efforts to identify and help physicians impaired by drugs or alcohol. If he was disappointed that some wet-behind-the-ears kid with a Bic pen and a fresh reporter’s notebook had showed up to interview him, he didn’t show it. He welcomed me into his office with his kindly face and his gentle Southern accent, and was gracious, helpful and did everything he could do to help me write a good story.

That story was one of many I’ve shared with him over the years, and the tradition has passed to his son, Anderson Spickard III, M.D., who is, like his father was, a faculty member in General Internal Medicine, and, like his father, one of my favorite people at Vanderbilt.

Speaking of stories, the elder Spickard has published a book, which he co-wrote with Barbara R. Thompson, called Stay With Me: Stories of a Black Bag Doctor.

The book is a series of patient stories (with names and details changed to preserve anonymity) from his 50-year career as a primary care physician. “Stay with me” comes from the request Jesus made to his disciples when he knew death was near, and Spickard applies the same idea to patients and their physicians.

“I have said the same words to patients who are losing consciousness. I have heard them from patients during critical or even routine illnesses,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

Some of the pieces in the book date from Spickard’s early days as a Vanderbilt medical student and his residency days on the wards at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Some are tragic and sad, such as the story of his first house call, to the home of a cousin whose father had committed suicide.

At least one is hilarious, the chapter titled, “Another Way Fried Chicken Can Hurt You,” which has to do with a chicken bone ending up in an uncomfortable place. If you can read this chapter without wincing in sympathetic pain, you are a cold, heartless human being, my friend.

In both the introduction and the final chapter of the book, Spickard writes briefly but movingly of his own struggles following his retirement from practice in 2008. He says that “Stand by me … are the words I myself spoke to friends and family during my own dark hour. I fell into a depression that was complicated by a painful physical illness. It was my turn to ask family and friends to ‘stay with me,’” he writes.

At various times in our lives we all need others to stay with us, to stand with us, and this book is a wise reminder of that.

Read Nancy Humphrey’s 2004 VUMC Reporter profile of Anderson Spickard Jr. and Anderson Spickard III.

Read Anderson Spickard III’s first-person account of being a physician on a relief flight out of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

View  “Stay with Me” at

Follow Wayne on Twitter: @woodw

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